A recent article on nationalacademies.org (which certainly sounds like a solid reference) has as its title “Driverless Motor Vehicles: Not Yet Ready for Prime Time” (link below). Since an abundance of media space too often is given to press releases from technology companies, which are then echoed by techno-optimistic bloggers, this was a title that caught my eye. While it would be nonsensical to deny the achievements of technological progress and a mistake to minimise them, there are still reasons to remain cautious about some of the promises made by visionaries of technological progress. If they all would have come through as envisioned, I would already in teenage years have been flying to school in a jetpack and friendly robots would have guided me to fully immersive learning experiences (instead of having to bicycle to school and watch the teacher write on a blackboard – and yes, I am that old, blackboards and overhead projectors were the prime means for display of information back then).
The article acknowledges that the current death toll in traffic could be significantly reduced with increased use of automation for road transportation. However, it does pose two questions often asked in regards to automation: 1) What happens if the automation fails? and 2) What if the automation has to handle a situation that has not been considered by its designers? These questions has been asked throughout the history of automation, robotics and AI and it has been explored by researchers and others thinking about the potential and limitations of technology. In the article, these questions are focused on fully automated vehicles, i.e. self-driving cars but it brings up many aspects which are equally relevant for aviation.
The article goes on to discuss the challenges to achieve the vision of a fully automated road transportation system and references the experiences of automation in aviation. The point made is that in aviation, automation has been an ongoing process for decades, that this has been in a less complex environment than road transport and that still today pilots are not expected to be replaced any time soon. I am not sure that I agree with either of these statements, given the complexity of any airspace environment, especially close to a major airport, and the current developments towards single pilot operations. But perhaps complexity can be a matter of perspective.
Developing autonomous vehicles is, according to the article, more challenging than previously envisioned and will take longer than many of its proponents advocates have anticipated. Also, the many Human Factors challenges experienced in aviation are mentioned, with implicit reference to accidents and experienced related to automation. Special emphasis is placed upon the difficulties of mixing autonomous and human operators and the potential failures of automation. The recent Boeing 737MAX accidents are brought up, so is the “Miracle on the Hudson”, as a counterpoint. While providing a less positive perspective than often encountered in texts about automated transport, it is useful to read this perspective and consider the remaining obstacles to this vision.
The point of the article may be supported by the experience in daily life of interacting with the “chatbots” often used these days for customer service. Even if it is not made clear to us that we are speaking to a bot, it does not take long (a non-standard question is usually enough) until we realise that we are not chatting with another human being. For a range of simple questions (location, opening hours, ticket prices etc.) we would probably not have known the difference. But for anything beyond this they usually create nothing else but frustration. Even as these chatbots gets far more advanced, those last five percent of difference to a human may still be challenging to resolve. The same may prove to be true for both driverless cars and pilotless planes.
Link to article:
Driverless Motor Vehicles: Not Yet Ready for Prime Time